This long read was originally published in The Looking Glass, a New Zealand blog.
This is a story about how a British university stifled ground-breaking public interest science, ostensibly to satisfy powerful interests — and save their own bacon.
As far as the general public is concerned, universities, those hallowed halls, remain places where academics can pursue knowledge unhindered. But many universities and higher education institutions are compromised by the interests of their funders and an increasingly narrow and corporate view of science.
Professor Christopher Exley, a lauded biologist, the world’s pre-eminent expert on aluminium and a fellow of the Royal Society of Biology — a recognition few scientists achieve — last year lost research funding for his longstanding work on aluminium toxicity in diseases like Alzheimer’s and autism, and its role as an adjuvant in vaccines.
It took place through a series of politically motivated moves that ultimately ended with his funding being completely cut off.
Aluminium is toxic
If you take the time to listen to one of Exley’s many lectures — and you should — you will learn that aluminium is ubiquitous. It is everywhere in the environment, and it is highly toxic to human beings.
In the 1980s, Exley was doing research into why fish were dying in acidified lakes and rivers; he came to understand they were dying of aluminium toxicity. Aluminium — previously locked up in rocks and clays or recycled in the environment by silicic acid — had, through the process of acidification due to acid rain, become bioavailable and entered into biological life cycles.
Today, we ingest aluminium through processed foods, drink it in water, and cook in aluminium pots and pans (many pans are now made of anodised aluminium). It is found in baby formula, cosmetics and is a key ingredient in many vaccines.
The important public health implications of Exley’s work
A tenured professor at Keele University in Staffordshire for nearly 30 years, with more than 200 papers under his belt, Exley and his team of research scientists had in 2017 established what he describes as an “unequivocal” connection between aluminium toxicity and Alzheimer’s disease.
“Without aluminium, there would be no Alzheimer’s,” he says in his book, Imagine You Are An Aluminium Atom.
A few years later, in 2020, Exley’s group published their seminal paper comparing aluminium content in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis and autism in Nature’s Scientific Reports.
The team had developed a protocol to measure the aluminium content of brains, which had shown that the brains of people with Alzheimer’s, autism and multiple sclerosis had elevated levels of aluminium. Importantly, access to the samples from a brain bank used in the research had been funded by charitable donations rather than more traditional funding sources.
Answering questions from The Looking Glass, Exley says that by the time this paper was published the focus of their research had already turned to aluminium adjuvants and vaccines, a field of study they had pursued for many years.
A 2021 paper measured the aluminium content of 13 infant vaccines and compared it with the manufacturer’s data. Only three vaccines contained the amount of aluminium indicated by the manufacturer, while six contained a statistically significant greater quantity, and four a statistically significant lower quantity.
Exley’s work is ground-breaking, and has obvious implications for public health. He and his team were the last research group left in Britain studying the impact of toxic exposure to aluminium, a field of study that just twenty years earlier was active.
Aluminium research quietly suffocated
Exley explains that in the early 1990s, the aluminium industry stepped up its efforts to influence government, charities and various industries to make it increasingly difficult for scientists to obtain funding to do research into aluminium toxicity:
Hence, group [after] group moved their attention from aluminium to other areas where funding was available. I have said this many times, but I did not become a scientist for science’s sake. I took up science to solve the paradox of aluminium and human life.
I was undeterred and worked harder and harder to win research funding from as wide a funding base as possible. I doubt that any scientist has worked as hard as I did in keeping research funding coming to my lab
While Exley had been able to be conclusive about the connection between Alzheimer’s and aluminium toxicity, sadly his work was scuppered before he was able be as conclusive about the link between aluminium toxicity and autism and nor could he continue his work on aluminium in vaccines.
In this 2020 interview, Exley talks about his research into aluminium and brain toxicity.
A less-than-lukewarm response
Autism and Alzheimer’s rates continue to climb decade after decade.
In 2021, the Centres for Disease Control reported that approximately one in 44 children aged eight in the US is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, according to 2018 data: an increase from the one-in-54 statistic reported in 2020 and an enormous increase from the first known US autism prevalence study in 1970, which established a rate of less than one in 10,000.
Despite the rising incidence of these diseases, his research on Alzheimer’s and autism had elicited nothing but silence from the major charities dedicated to these diseases. And the university he worked for, Keele, appeared only to tolerate him, he says, never promoting his findings or issuing press releases.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Exley had also been saddled with the label of anti-vaxxer. The slur was pinned on him by internet trolls immediately following the publication of research on aluminium in brain tissue in autism in 2017, he says:
Scrutiny of the paper in question and all of our published works provides no support for this label. Though, in truth, I do not understand why one cannot be against vaccination in the same way as one might oppose anything else. Anti-vaxxer seems akin to being labelled an atheist in a predominantly Christian world.
Exley says he is agnostic, in the tradition of one of his science heroes, T.H. Huxley: reluctant to claim certainty about things he cannot know or demonstrate. And yet, inconveniently, he has demonstrated that elevated levels of aluminium are found in the brains of people who died with autism.
A 2020 paper called ‘An aluminium adjuvant in a vaccine is an acute exposure to aluminium’ attempted to explain why the so-called “teeny weeny” amounts of aluminium in infant vaccines were in fact significant.
The paper concludes:
Exposure to aluminium through a vaccine is, in comparison to diet, an acute exposure and an infant’s physiology will respond differently to exposure to a high concentration of aluminium over a very short time period. The latter, acute versus chronic exposure, while not yet being taken into account in infant vaccination programmes, must now be considered to help to ensure that future vaccination schedules are safe.
Can science be ‘anti-vaccine’?
Exley’s work broadly examined the impact of aluminium on human biology, and was certainly not limited to exposure via vaccines, but his work was nevertheless attracting negative attention. Later, it became clear that the attention was unwanted, as far as the university was concerned.
Through a series of bizarre and drawn-out interactions with the university administration, and through what eventually became clear was an attack on his funding sources, Exley’s longstanding position at Keele began to unravel.
Exley told The Looking Glass that during his last few years at Keele, on more than one occasion senior management attempted “spuriously-founded disciplinary action” against him:
Only my use of world-class and expensive employment lawyers protected me from being ousted. Needless to say, these events did have a negative impact upon my health; but I did not give in, at least not while I had the funding to continue to do good science.
I am sure that if I had remained at Keele as a lame duck professor, they would have continued to hunt me down until I left.
But he was not pushed out; in the end, Exley resigned. Without the ability to continue his research, he had no enthusiasm to stick around.
“For over twenty years, I had the full and unconditional support of the University,” Exley wrote in his tell-all leaving statement.
So, what happened?
The beginning of the end
In 2016 the university set up a simplified portal for Exley’s team to receive donations, which he says worked well for a couple of years. But in 2018, senior management began to interfere. Excuses were made that the online portal was unsuitable and an alternative system should be set up.
Exley had been very successful at attracting independent and unsolicited funding for his research from traditional sources as well as from the public and philanthropists. He had brought in about £6 million over his thirty-year term at Keele, most of it from traditional funders (corporate, government and large charities).
This was unusual, at least at Keele, he says:
You need a profile to be able to obtain funding from, for example, philanthropic services, and you need to be prepared to work extremely hard in bringing in sponsors. For example, being prepared to travel the world giving talks in a wide variety of situations.
Researching the role of aluminium in vaccines was one of his main subject areas, but this research was not popular with major funders. Still, Exley had managed to bring in about £1 million in philanthropic donations in his last seven or eight years at the university, which had enabled their vaccine research to survive. It was this funding stream that Keele ensured was unable to flow.
He began to receive e-mails from potential donors that the portal was not working, and found out that it had been disabled. He was then told by administrators that there was a need for clearer rules with regards to ‘crowdfunding’: rules, he says, that applied within the university only to him. This despite the fact that he had never attempted crowdfunding and none of his funding was gained that way. Exley believes that rather, this was an impression that Keele wanted to make.
The role of the media
In 2019, the Guardian published an article scrutinising his funding via Keele’s online funding portal and drawing attention to his work on aluminium in vaccines and their potential link to autism. The article was clearly aimed at discrediting his work and casting doubt on the validity of its funding.
Exley told The Looking Glass he believes that someone from Keele almost certainly initiated the Guardian article and provided the financial information. He made numerous enquiries through his lawyers to the university asking for evidence of the reporter’s Freedom of Information request, but this has not been forthcoming.
The Guardian is clearly an arm of a greater body and is not averse to telling lies. Other mainstream media in the UK, such as the Times, are no better. Since 2016, I have only received negative publicity about our research. This was not always the case.
What triggered the change was probably the publication of this paper on the toxicity of aluminium adjuvants in clinically approved vaccines, he says.
At the end of 2019, a new portal was set up, now managed by the alumni office. This worked for around six months. But donors once again contacted Exley, this time to say his name did not appear in the drop-down menu on the donations portal. He says in his leaving statement:
Senior management at Keele seemed determined to make donations towards my research as difficult as possible for potential donors. This included refusing to inform me when a donation had been made.
I had to rely upon donors contacting me to inform me that they had made a donation. However, donations continued to be received and this unconditional support of our research by individual donors was only brought to an end in February 2021 when Keele’s senior management acted to prevent all donations to my group.
The Guardian article had led to internal discussion among senior management at Keele that labelled Exley as an anti-vaxxer, despite an email dated 25 February to Exley stating they took a neutral view:
As you are aware, from time to time, concerns have been raised by both our external and internal communities, as a result of press stories, about research undertaken at the University by you and its use to question vaccine safety in a manner which may undermine public health initiatives. On this we make no judgment.
The research group’s website, which compiled all of its research and housed the funding portal, was suspended. Funding would only be permitted from industry or government sources, prohibiting him from receiving funding from philanthropists, charities and personal donations — a rule that applied only to Exley.
Robert Kennedy and the politicisation of vaccine safety science
In 2021, this new rule led to a US$15,000 donation from Robert F. Kennedy being rejected by Keele. Robert F. Kennedy is the founder of Children’s Health Defense, an organisation working to shed light on vaccine injury and corruption in the pharmaceutical industry and its regulators.
Kennedy commented in an article in CHD:
Exley’s research efforts have documented grave toxic effects of aluminum exposures on human health. Towards the end of last year, I learned that future research in Dr Exley’s laboratory was in jeopardy if he was unable to raise further research funding. Fearing that his critical research would wither, I sent a personal check for $15,000 to Exley via Keele.
I never expected that my donation would be rejected. I’ve never heard of any university returning a donation from a private individual with no corporate conflicts […] I am an environmental and public health advocate and attorney who has spent years successfully suing the world’s biggest polluters and pharmaceutical companies in the public interest.
The rejection of Kennedy’s 2021 donation triggered another article in the Guardian by the same reporter, Patrick Greenfield, with the headline ‘Keele University accepting funds for researcher who shared vaccine misinformation’.
It contained this statement from Keele:
The university emphatically supports public health vaccination programmes and recognises the importance that current vaccines play in protecting health both in the UK and globally.
Exley told The Looking Glass that a clue to whoever may have pulled the strings at Keele came from a letter written to Kennedy by Keele, explaining why his donation was being turned down:
Mention is made of major funding partners. The obvious ones are the NHS — [which is] no more than an adjunct to the global pharmaceutical industry; AstraZeneca, who have a considerable presence on campus; and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
An internal e-mail between two university administrators that Exley was able to get hold of also indicated the university was trying to stay on the right side of another major funder. The e-mail said:
I think it is clear that the decision is in the best interests of the charity: accepting donations solicited by an individual supporting anti-vaccine misinformation risks a £9m research income per annum from NIHR being lost. The Guardian headline is spot on: Keele facilitates money flowing to a prominent anti-vaccine academic.
The chief executive of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), a government agency which funds research into health and social care, is Chris Whitty, who was also the chief medical advisor to the British Government at the height of the Covid response.
Following The Science
In the last decade, following the science has come to be something of a mantra in public discourse. A naïve public might suppose that would mean Exley’s findings would end up being reflected in public health policy, or that the public would at a minimum be made aware of the risks and sources of aluminium exposures — but Exley’s work has been largely ignored. He says:
There was no science-based backlash; no-one refuted our findings. However, the internet trolls seem to have the support of search engines such as Google, and so their attacks on our work are always on the first page of any search.
His work has also involved figuring out how to rid the body of the toxin, with rather startling results. Could it be that the solution is as simple as consuming mineral water rich in silicic acid? That, and avoiding it to begin with?
Exley says the aluminium lobby goes largely unacknowledged, unlike Big Pharma, Big Ag and Big Tech, but that it is arguably the most powerful of all:
It is a silent ‘big brother’ that, while rarely commenting at all on aluminium toxicity in humans, is always there to support the myriad industries that depend upon its product.
The science stands
Credulous members of the public who uncritically accept reporting in the Guardian, or any other legacy media outlet, are likely to perceive Exley as a charlatan. That is the point of such stories.
But despite his employer’s capitulation to powerful industry forces, Exley wasn’t openly ostracised by the scientific community:
Our research, over 200 peer-reviewed papers, is accepted as sound and, for example, led to an invitation to be a fellow of the Royal Society of Biology. It is probably true to say that my fellow scientists have not rushed to support me at this time but they have not been at the forefront of any criticism either.
I might add that a letter was sent to the vice-chancellor at Keele signed by over 100 scientists asking for the reinstatement of myself and my funding at Keele. It was ignored. Other eminent scientists have written to the VC as individuals and received no reply.
The public remains largely unaware of the dynamics gripping science institutions (and science reporting): that they are controlled by money and that certain narratives are promoted, often through far-reaching, sophisticated public relations campaigns that have included capturing media.
What happened to Exley is a high-profile example of it, but we could equally point to the character assassination of epidemiologist Dr Simon Thornley in New Zealand or the widespread censorship of doctors and scientist speaking out against the Covid response that is taking place globally.
There is, in fact, a long history of censoring inconvenient science and defaming those who insist on doing it. Biochemist Árpád Pusztai, gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield and geneticist Gilles Éric Séralini are just three others who come to mind. All of them had highly successful careers before reputational smear campaigns, media hit pieces and institutional pressure were brought to bear on them.
The degree to which money has sullied the waters of public interest science is also evidenced by the fact that most funding is now channeled towards applied science, with commercial imperatives. Science like Exley’s, that explores environmental and human toxicity, does not generally lead to lucrative patents.
I asked him how this broken system might be fixed. He replied:
Science cannot flourish when funding comes from industry, government and major charities all of which have significant vested interests and cannot be trusted. Perhaps institutions supported solely by philanthropy could bring back some of the integrity that has been lost.
Exley is now retired, although should a willing philanthropist emerge, he says he would resume his research.